December 22, 2012

Husker season review



LINCOLN, Neb. - There may not have been a more roller-coaster season in decades for Nebraska football than the ups and downs the Huskers went through in 2012.

Painful early-season road losses to UCLA and Ohio State were paired with five come-from-behind victories that helped NU win a division title and punch a ticket to the Big Ten Championship. After falling completely flat in a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in Indianapolis, though, the Huskers are licking their wounds heading into their Capital One Bowl showdown with Georgia.

Here's a look back on Nebraska's season and some of the key moments that led it to its meeting with the Bulldogs in Orlando…

Best regular season win:

Nebraska may have gotten a little help in this game, but it's hard to argue that it's 23-9 win over Michigan in Lincoln was its most important victory in earning a division title and a trip to the Big Ten title.

Going into the game tied for first place in the Legends Division standings, the Huskers swarmed a Wolverine offense that was without star quarterback Denard Robinson for the entire second half because of an elbow injury. Freshman Russell Bellomy was just 3-of-16 passing for 38 yards and three interceptions in Robinson's absence.

No matter the circumstances, Nebraska ended up clinching the division title because of that head-to-head tiebreaker. Had it not been for that game, the Huskers likely wouldn't have had a shot at being one game from their first conference championship since 1999.

Regular season low point:

While the 63-38 loss to Ohio State had been the low point for the first 12 games of the regular season, there's no question that Nebraska's absolute disaster against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship was the lowest of lows for the program.

It was a game in which the Huskers were never even close, as the Badgers posted the most points ever given up by a Bo Pelini defense (70) and the most rushing yards allowed in NU school history (539). UW's 643 total yards were just 16 shy of tying the school record for most yards allowed in a game.

All that came on a nationally televised stage in a game that was supposed to take Nebraska to its first BCS bowl game since 2001. It's hard to say if the Huskers have fully recovered from that loss, but they better hope so if they're going to try and rebound against a Georgia team coming off a heart-breaking defeat of its own.

Turning point of the season

Following the Ohio State loss, Pelini made the claim that Nebraska had to win out in its six remaining regular season games if it were to have any chance at achieving its goal of a conference title. With less than three minutes to go in the very next game at Northwestern, though, it was looking as if that goal might fall short.

The Huskers had fallen behind 28-16 midway through the fourth quarter, but after a touchdown pass from quarterback Taylor Martinez to receiver Taariq Allen and a defensive stop on the Wildcats' ensuing drive, Nebraska suddenly had the ball with a chance to take the lead in the final minutes.

On a first-and-goal with just over two minutes remaining, Martinez hit tight end Ben Cotton for an 7-yard touchdown pass over the middle, putting the Huskers up for good. That game would spark a six-game winning streak and earn them a trip to Indy.

The what if…

There isn't a season in recent memory with more fortune changing plays than Nebraska had in 2012. The first of which was obviously the Northwestern comeback, as without it the Huskers wouldn't have even got their late-season run off the ground.

But there were plenty more after that. Things would likely have been entirely different against Michigan had Robinson not gone down, as the Wolverines' offense was literally helpless without him. The very next week, the Huskers needed another last-minute touchdown drive, including a questionable pass interference call in the end zone, to top Michigan State 28-24.

The week after that, Nebraska pulled off its fourth double-digit comeback in five conference wins with a 32-23 victory at home over Penn State. With eight minutes left and NU holding onto a 27-23 lead, Nittany Lion tight end Matt Lehman caught a pass and lunged for the end zone. He was met at the goal line and lost control of the ball, which was recovered by Nebraska. After several reviews, it was ruled that Lehman did fumble, though many who saw the play disagreed.

The Huskers overcame cold and blustery conditions and a series of mental miscues for another come-from-behind win over in the regular season finale against Iowa, but all that good fortune obviously came to a screeching halt in the conference championship.

What kind of impact did injuries play?

It's hard not to think about what might have been had senior running back Rex Burkhead been healthy all season. Arguably the heart and soul of the team, Burkhead suffered a sprained MCL in the season opener and was never the same the rest of the year.

He came back three weeks later and played through the injury against Idaho State and Wisconsin, but then re-aggravated his knee at Ohio State. Burkhead tried to play the next week at Northwestern but suffered yet another setback, this time keeping him out until second half of the final game at Iowa. While guys like Ameer Abdullah filled in nicely in his absence, it never quite felt like NU's offense was ever at full strength with Burkhead out of the mix.

Then there were the season-ending injuries to starting center Justin Jackson and defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler against the Hawkeyes. While Nebraska was able to get by Iowa without them, their absence in the Big Ten title was definitely felt.


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